English test results for 11-year-olds have fallen for the first time in the 15-year history of the national curriculum SATs.
Figures published yesterday show one in five youngsters failing to master English – with the percentage reaching the required standard dropping by one percentage point to 80 per cent this year. All told, that means a total of 115,000 primary pupils beginning secondary school next month still struggling to master English. Of these, 46,000 failed to gain any grade at all and are borderline illiterate.
In addition, the percentage mastering the three Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic has also fallen from 62 per cent to 61 per cent. This, again, is the first fall since joint statistics were first collected four years ago and shows 225,000 struggling to succeed in all three areas. The biggest problem identified by yesterday's results was with boys' writing – where four out of 10 still leave primary school struggling to write properly.
The results are an embarrassment for ministers who now face going into a general election with reading and writing standards in primary schools – their top policy priority in 1997 – falling.
David Laws, the Liberal Democrats' schools spokesman, said: "Progress in primary schools has clearly stalled and in some cases has even slipped backwards. The yawning gap between girls and boys in literacy is very worrying. One in four boys now starts secondary school without being able to read or write at the expected level."
Yesterday's results show that – at 80 per cent – the numbers reaching the required standard in English remains doggedly at the target set by ministers for 2002 when Labour first took office in 1997. In maths and science, the percentage reaching the required standard remained the same as last year – 79 per cent and 88 per cent respectively.
A second target of achieving 85 per cent in both English and maths – originally pencilled in for 2005 – lies in tatters. A new target of 78 per cent reaching the required standard in both subjects by 2011 looks unattainable, too – the figure slipped from 73 per cent to 72 per cent this year,
Yesterday ministers were at pains to point out that those just failing to reach the target – achieving what is called level three as opposed to the target of level four – should not be considered illiterate or innumerate.
Diana Johnson, Parliamentary Under Secretary for Schools and Learning, insisted: "A child at level three, for instance, is able to read and understand a Harry Potter novel."
Guidance notes show a level three candidate can read independently and write a sound sentence. In maths, they can do two-figure additions and subtractions in their heads.
Ms Johnson took heart from the fact that, in the-worst performing schools, there had been a six percentage point rise in pupils achieving the standard expected. However, this means there are pockets of under-performance in some of the schools experiencing the best results in the past.
A breakdown of the results show girls are way ahead of boys in reading (89 per cent of girls reached the standard as opposed to 82 per cent of boys) and writing (75 per cent and 60 per cent respectively) and just ahead in science (89 per cent compared to 88 per cent). Boys nudge ahead in maths (79 per cent compared to 78 per cent).
The number of bright youngsters going on to reach a higher level in English – level five – has also fallen by two percentage points in reading to 47 per cent and one percentage point in writing to 19 per cent. In maths, it has gone up four percentage points to 35 per cent.
There was a mixed reaction to the results from teachers' leaders with the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) – both of who are planning to boycott them next year – questioning their validity. Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, said: "There are fundamental questions about the validity of some of the tests such as writing. The reality is that standards in primary schools are the best they have ever been."
The NAHT urged parents to "ignore this meaningless nonsense". It wants the tests abolished because they narrow the curriculum – leading to teachers spending more time coaching for the tests in the final years of primary school.
Mr Laws said: "Ministers need to cut class sizes and ensure schools receive extra cash so that teachers can give struggling children the extra support they desperately need."
Michael Gove, the Conservatives' schools spokesman, added: "We have seen a historic drop in English results, the brightest students are not being stretched and the weakest are being failed the most.
"This is final proof that Labour, elected on a platform to raise standards in education, has failed to deliver."
Ms Johnson said that plans to introduce more one-to-one coaching for struggling pupils from September would help to improve standards.
Great expectations: How Sats are graded
A pupil should be able to reach level four in maths and English by the time they finish primary school. That means that in maths they can add, subtract, multiply and divide in their heads comfortably and know their times tables up to 10 x 10.
In English, they should be an active reader, be able to read "between the lines", understand the point, moral and message and write sentences.
But those who achieve level three, one rung below, are not considered illiterate or innumerate, which is often assumed by traditionalists in education.
In maths, they should be able to do simple decimals and fractions and two-figure additions and subtractions in their heads. They should be "very comfortable" with their 2, 3, 4, 5 and 10x multiplication tables. But 8 x 7 may be beyond them, as it was for Stephen Byers when he was Schools Secretary.
In English they should be able to read independently – "Harry Potter novels" as Diane Johnson, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Schools, put it – and write a sound sentence. They can find the main points, but not necessarily get the point, moral and message.
It is those who are ungraded that are in the main borderline illiterate or innumerate. This accounts for 46,000 11-year-olds in reading, 29,000 in writing and 29,000 in maths.